Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: THE ADVENTURES OF BUCK O'RUE by Dick Huemer and Paul Murry (Classic Comics Press, 2012)

This isn't your garden-variety "classic comics collection" (and, given how many outstanding reprint projects are ongoing at the moment, I actually feel quite tickled to write that).  For starters, the short-lived slapstick Western BUCK O'RUE doesn't honestly merit the label of a "classic," the best efforts of writer Dick Huemer and artist (and, ultimately, replacement writer!) Paul Murry notwithstanding.  Huemer's stated desire, as related by his son Richard in the book's preface, was to create an exaggerated comedy strip "that would forever end all things Western," but, from the very beginning, he was also determined to make BUCK a daily continuity strip.  Very, very few creators have ever been able to maintain that particular balance; indeed, "genius" appears to be one of the prerequisites for doing so (here are two creators who come to mind).  BUCK O'RUE is only partially successful at pulling the trick off, and one can reasonably argue in hindsight that Huemer and Murry would probably have been better off making BUCK a straight Sunday feature, in the mold of, say, SMOKEY STOVER.  That being said, there's quite a lot to enjoy here, especially for Disney comics fans eager to get an eyeful and a half of some of Murry's most noteworthy non-Disney work.

The core of BUCK O'RUE is the conflict between the impossibly handsome, preternaturally gifted -- and, truth be told, somewhat stone-headed and oblivious -- title character and the scar-faced, squinting, overbearing badnik Trigger Mortis for control of the wild 'n woolly Western town of Mesa Trubil, a burg so beyond the pale that the U.S. wouldn't accept it back into the Union after the Civil War.  The Sunday page draws away from this basic confrontation for a while to tell what are purported to be tales of Buck's past adventures, but even it is ultimately pulled back into the tug-of-war.  This conceit might have sustained a Sunday page for a good long time, but, in a daily format, it gets repetitive rather quickly.  Before the strip's 18-month life has ended, we've already seen multiple examples of Mortis almost tricking Deacon Duncan's darling daughter (and Buck's inamorata) Dorable into marrying him, Mortis trying to get Buck out of his hair by appealing to obscure town statutes, Buck periodically "cleaning up the town"... you get the idea.  Before long, Huemer and Murry appear to have gotten cold feet regarding the pint size of the canvas on which they were working.  During the transition period when Huemer was preparing to leave and turn the whole schmeer over to Murry, the strip runs a bizarre series of "coming attractions" bumpers ("Coming Soon!  The Great Beefsteak Scandal!").  I originally thought that these were meant strictly in jest, on the order of the overblown titles announced at the ends of Rocky and Bullwinkle segments, but, according to the volume's extensive series of Endnotes, they may also have been meant to convince client papers to keep running the strip after Murry took over.  The level of creator confidence displayed by this ploy is not very reassuring.

If BUCK O'RUE has a "cult following" in its future, it will probably be because of Murry's artwork.  It is exquisite, rich in detail, and can coax a laugh out of anyone.  Those who are familiar with the look of Murry's dogface characters in Disney comics will quickly recognize the designs of most of the figures herein as human versions of same.  The major exceptions are the strong-chinned Buck himself; Dorable Duncan, who amply displays Murry's considerable talent for drawing beautiful women; and Mortis' right-hand gunman, Skullface Skelly, whom I can best describe as an emaciated, grown-up, weather-beaten sagebrush version of Outcault's Yellow Kid.

The extras provided here rate an extra word or two -- preferably peppered with liberal dashes of asperity.  Co-editors Richard Huemer Jr. and Germund van Wowern chuck the occasional verbal Roman candle at us in the unlikeliest of places.  von Wowern speaks several volumes with these two lines at the end of his biographical sketch of Murry: "By the early 70s, Paul already considered Mickey Mouse a character of the past.  A decade later, he finally retired."  Huemer lets loose this zinger while discussing his Dad's vision of the West:  "The Myth and its Hero tug at the fringes of our collective unconsciousness, unwilling to let a faltering empire succumb to rigor mortis just yet."  And check out the concluding sentence of a Note on BUCK's depiction of Native Americans in one Sunday continuity: "Belief in 'race' persists in the 21st century, providing politicians with an invaluable tool for shepherding citizens into voting blocs."  If you're wondering what opinionation of this sort is doing in a comic-strip collection, this Web site may hold part of the answer.  Hey, it could have been worse.


Joe Torcivia said...


When you say “here are two creators who come to mind” – should that not be THREE? What about the man who “made” the comics Mickey Mouse (ironically, the character that brought Paul Murry whatever degree of fame he has achieved), Floyd Gottfredson?

Honestly, no joke or implied snark, before clicking on those two links, I expected to find Segar and Gottfredson. I freely admit that my appreciation of both Kelly and POGO is out of synch with the majority, and might account for this, but shouldn’t Gottfredson be included as well?

Funny, if you think about it, you CAN “get” – though not agree with – Murry’s opinion of Mickey being a “character of the past”. Consider the nature of the stories Murry was illustrating at the time. Innocuous and insignificant eight-page fillers that merely played-out-the-sting of what was once a more dynamic comic book run.

Also, from having met and/or corresponded with a number of the creators of Murry’s era, they didn’t always regard working with such characters as the “privilege” that more of us do today. It was a “job”. And, just as I feel about my own “day job” after 30 years (last week, BTW), it’s more of a grind than fun or privilege. No doubt, that’s where Murry “was” at the time – and it reflected in his compete lack of interest in correspondence with fans – at a time when fans like myself were more civil and respectful and brought less “Misery”… meant in the Stephen King sense of the word!

Oh, and “Trigger Mortis”? Gotta love that!


Chris Barat said...


Of course, you make a very valid point about Gottfredson belonging in this group. I just happened to pick those two examples. Kelly was in my head because of Huemer's expressed wish to do a strongly satirical strip.

"Played out the sting"! Ouch! An inadvertent comment in and of itself.


Germund said...

I'd say there are several "genial" cartoonists in that group, depending on what genre of continuity comic strip you're referring to. Segar, Kelly and Gottfredson for sure, but I'd add peak period Roy Crane too, and Caniff for his handling of continuity alone.

By the way, that sentence about Murry considering Mickey a "character of the past" is based on both an old interview by Don Ault (soon available in Didier Ghez' Walt's People series) and merely looking at Murry's seventies Disney work; I enjoy reading many of his later stories too, but he began leaving out backgrounds, used very repetitive poses, cut characters at the waist to avoid full figure shots etc.

Richard Huemer said...

I think of comic strips as I do of films and stories: windows into past worlds. Most creative works are very much a product of their time, so from them we can learn more about where we came from and--by juxtaposition with the present--where we’re headed. Westerns don’t enjoy the popularity they once had. it’s significant that our American myth of the rugged-individualist cowboy has become irrelevant in this era of the American sheeple’s herd mentality. My commenting on this aspect of the comic strip is not less appropriate than an analysis of Paul Murry’s crescent moons would be--it’s more appropriate. As for race, I’ll let my brother Allen have the last word on that, in his obscure book The Invention of Race. As a PhD in political science, he marshalled a lot of anthropological and other evidence to show “race” is a bullsh*t idea invented by Europeans to subjugate peoples native to the Americas. Isn’t that, in a way, what the Buck O’Rue strip was getting at in its satirical story about stealing the Indians’ land? Does the strip’s “opinionation” also offend Mr. Barat, or is it OK with him so long as it’s wrapped in image-text?